Friday, 30 May 2008

Outside Pakistani High Commission

Outside Pakistani High Commission
Shabir Choudhry

It was in mid 1970s when, as a teenager, I first demonstrated outside the Indian High Commission. We were there to demand independence of Kashmir, and speak of basic human rights for the people of Kashmir. Since that I don't remember how many times I have been there in all sorts of weather conditions. We even had hunger strikes there and sat down on the footpath in a wet and cold weather. The purpose of all this was to protest against India, and show our solidarity with the people of Indian occupied Kashmir.

Up till 1990 the people protesting outside the Indian High Commission were almost all from Azad Kashmir. After that a few people from the Indian side of Kashmir started joining these demonstrations. It is understandable that people from the Indian side of Kashmir are fewer in number, and are mainly from professional class.

On 26 February nationalist political parties of Kashmir decided to hold a demonstration outside the Pakistani High Commission. There were number of reason for this rare event, details are as follows:
Closure of K2 newspaper
Arrest of journalists
Arrest of political activists in Gilgit and Baltistan
Denial of basic human rights to the people of that region
Arrest of 17 leaders of All Parties National alliance, which included leaders of JKLF and JKNLF.
Extension of Mangla Dam was also an issue

Among the arrested included a son of Maqbool Butt, a martyr of Kashmir, and their crime was to demand the release of other political activists and journalists. These leaders were arrested on 12 February and were kept in Adiala Jail for more than two weeks without access to lawyers or right o meet any visitors. They were not charged for anything because they had not committed any offence. The idea of these arrests was to harass the nationalists of Kashmir, and tell them to keep quiet on the issue of Gilgit and Baltistan.

In England, Europe and America nationalists of Kashmir raised their voice against the above. It started with press statements, followed by a petition to the Pakistan High Commission. When no action was taken to release them or charge them for something, or a response was received we thought of having a demonstration outside the Pakistan High Commission.

No doubt it was a difficult decision. It is very easy to give call for a demonstration outside the Indian High Commission, and people are accustomed to having many of such demonstrations in a year. It is proper for members of Peoples Party to demonstrate outside Pakistan High Commission on political issues which concern them. Similarly Muslim League, MQM and other Pakistani nationals have time and again used their democratic right of demonstration.

Even Kashmiri parties, who are considered as pro- Pakistani parties, have used this right in the past. Just to remind readers this right of protest was used by pro- Pakistani Kashmiris parties in 1970s and early 1980s, when General Zia Ul Haq appointed Brigadier Mohammed Ayat as President of Azad Kashmir and many Kashmiri leaders were arrested, including Choudhary Noor Hussain, father of Barrister Sultan Mahmood, the present Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir. Demonstrations and public meetings were held for the release of these leaders and restoration of democracy in Azad Kashmir.

In other words people of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan have demonstrated against Pakistani actions in the past. The reason for demonstration could be different as political groups and parties have different issues closer to their hearts. One issue may be very important to one person and it may look very trivial to the other.

To me a right of expression is very essential for every civil society, and closure of a newspaper is to curb this basic human right. This right must not be curbed, even where there are many newspapers. In Azad Kashmir and Gilgit and Baltistan we don't have any daily newspapers. In Gilgit K2 was the only newspaper providing some kind of information to the people, and even that is closed. To me and many other people who believe in the right of expression, think it is a serious matter. If we remain silent, as is our habit on these occasions, then we are encouraging the authorities to establish a totalitarian society. To others this is only a trivial matter, and does not merit a protest.

Even when it hurts us we have habit of remaining quiet. The reason is simple, we don't want to annoy others, and face difficulties. We tend to justify actions which are wrong, or belittle them by saying it is a trivial matter, because if we say it is not, then we are obliged to do something about it and we are not prepared to do that.

When we thought of using this right of demonstration to protest against human rights in Gilgit and Baltistan and Azad Kashmir, then there was a strong pressure to abandon this idea. The pressure was from within and outside, and it was made to look that sky will fall down if we go ahead with this idea of demonstration; and that there will be serious consequences for the nationalist leadership in Britain. People may not remember that the nationalist Kashmiris have demonstrated outside the Pakistan High Commission in the past, so it was not the first time, but it was the first one in a decade or so.

Those who opposed the demonstration argued that by demonstrating outside Pakistan High Commission, we will be putting India and Pakistan on same level. Their logic was that what Pakistan has done is not as serious as what India has done, and is still doing. In other words arrest and imprisonment of political activists, political leaders, journalists, and closure of newspaper is not serious enough to merit a demonstration.
We should, perhaps, wait until human rights violations of a serious nature is committed and then demonstrate.

It is true that human rights violation in the Indian occupied Kashmir is of very serious nature which includes rapes, killing of innocent people, custodial killings and imprisonment of innocent people without trial etc. And what has happened on this side of LOC is not as serious as the above, but nevertheless it is human rights violation. This reminds me that when we used to demonstrate outside the Indian High Commission in 1970s and 1980s, there were no serious human rights violations there at that time, and yet we spoke for the rights of those people, and showed our solidarity.

It was Monday, a working day, weather was cold and wet, and the JKLF had a march and demonstration against India only the previous week - so we did not try our best, yet we all managed to get more than 250 people to join us in the demonstration. That shows the strength of public feeling on these issues. We know at times, many Kashmiri political parties together could not get more than 70 people for demonstrations.

Anyhow despite all the pressures we were outside the Pakistan High Commission protesting against different issues. Among the protesters there was only one person from the Valley, Dr Nazir Gilani, even some may argue that he has served as a senior civil servant in Azad Kashmir and as a senior officer in Pakistan Reds Cross, so he is half Azad Kashmiri.

The point is that people of Azad Kashmir, whether violation of human rights is of serious nature or not, have always shown their solidarity with the people of the Indian occupied Kashmir. We would have very much appreciated if our brothers on this occasion had shown solidarity with us. Issues mentioned above may look trivial to them, but they are important to us; and when we used to demonstrate in 1970s and 1980s, issues at that time were not serious either, but we wanted to show solidarity with our brothers and that we believed in the unification of the State.

Whether we accept it or not it looks that we have double standards about human rights violations. If Muslim country commits human rights, trivial or serious, we tend to ignore this, and if it is committed by non-Muslim country then we have different attitude. Many examples from various countries could be given to support this argument.

Myopic and self-serving understanding and interpretation of human rights may please some and may help some to feather their nests, but it may not help to create understanding desperately needed to keep the State of Jammu and Kashmir united. Whatever is future of Kashmir, the State of Jammu and Kashmir must be united, and for that we all must work together. And for this we have to share each other's joy and sorrow, and support each other through thick and thin.

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